A Homily for Reformation Sunday
Texts: Romans 3:19-28; St. John 8:31-36
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who is ever reforming the Church and making all things new. Amen.
Worms, spring 1521. The Imperial Diet has brought together papal delegates and powerful bishops with prince-electors, dukes, and all manner of representatives from the across the Holy Roman Empire. Pope Leo X, a sire of Florence’s powerful banking dynasty, the Medici, and Emperor Charles V, who united Spain and the Holy Roman Empire under Hapsburg rule, are working together to crush an insurgent protest movement coming out of a college town in Saxony.
Already the year before Leo wrote Exsurge Domine:
Arise, O Lord, and judge your cause…for foxes have risen, seeking to destroy the vineyard….The wild boar from the forest strives to destroy it….
It’s flowery language for a bull, an official letter from the pope threatening excommunication unless a certain German monk should recant. In response? That monk, one Martin Luther, burned the document. Quickly thereafter, Leo issued another bull officially excommunicating Luther for rejecting papal authority.
And so it is that we find ourselves in the imperial city of Worms, Luther standing trial with two options: recant of everything and go back to peaceful obscurity in the university, or be banished from the Church and the empire. Given a day to prayerfully consider his response, Luther entered the chamber and defiantly said these famous words:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.
In 2003’s Luther, actor Joseph Fiennes delivers this speech to roaring applause as his supporters cheer – and outside, the crowds chant his name. And, eeeeh, most of it actually happened – with the probable exception of “Here I stand, I can do no other,” which is really quite a shame. It’s so bold. So defiant. A great quip – which is everything we’ve come to expect from Luther’s masterful of simple language to stir the heart and mind.
But let’s put aside that historical disappointment for a moment and focus on what we can establish.
As a result of Luther’s refusal to recant, Charles V called for Luther to be “apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic…”
Father Martin’s refusal to backdown at Worms five centuries ago is a bold act that put him in mortal peril.
And it’s easy for us to assume that this was all bound to happen as though the Reformation were a historical inevitability – after all, he’s the great Reverend Doctor Martin Luther, master of pen and printing press, author of Ein Feste Burg, our spiritual ancestor.
But let’s try, for just a moment, to strip away five hundred years of knowledge. Try to forget that we worship in a church with Luther’s rose emblazoned over the cross. Forget that his name is on the sign outside and that his picture hangs in the office. Try to cast out of your mind the statues of Luther (based on the on in Worms) stepping forward defiantly, pointing to the Bible in his hand, standing atop a base inscribed with his defiant, if imagined, words, “Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott helfe mir.”
No, the Luther of history is just a priest and a professor who asked some tough questions, a monk who just a few short years before was so terrified of his own sinful inadequacy that he spent hours in the confessional.
Now put yourself in his time and place: there were no denominations to choose from, no freedom of religious conscience. The options were to fall in line or face punishment. The pope reigned as a king, the bishops as princes and dukes, and many of them had powerful connections. And while the political rulers of Europe might occasionally wage war against Rome, they were more than willing to cast out unruly subjects to keep the peace. Anger the right person (which Luther had a knack for doing) and go to the pyre.
So how can it be that this scholar-monk would risk so much to defend what started out as a mere list of ninety-five theses for academic debate?
It is the same reason that Jan Hus and John Wycliffe and Francis of Assisi and John Chrysostom and Paul and Peter and Stephen risked everything: the Spirit of the Lord was upon them to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the good news that we are set free from sin and death because, in dying as a sacrifice and yet rising again, Christ has destroyed death and broken the bonds of sin.
As St. Paul writes in the epistle to the Romans, we are “justified [that is, put into right relationship with God Almighty, the Righteous Judge of all things] by faith apart from works prescribed by law.”
This free offer of salvation is not because of anything we can do – not because we pray hard enough or love well enough. No amount of time spent in the pews or reading the Bible, no amount given to church or charity, no action we can take can save us.
Is faithful attendance at the Divine Service important? Yes. Does it matter how we approach the liturgy? Yes. It won’t surprise any of you to learn that I consider how we worship – from church décor and music all the way down to how we fold our hands in prayer – to be important. But do such things forgive our sins? By no means.
Is it important to care for the poor and the oppressed, to work for reconciliation among all people, to be proper stewards of the earth? Most assuredly, yes. When we feed the hungry and visit the sick and strive to liberate those who are oppressed, we are serving Christ himself. And yet these wondrous acts are fruits of salvation, not the cause of it.
The more we try to follow God’s perfect law – to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and strength, to love our neighbors as ourselves, the more we see our own sin, all the ways we fail. Try to love your enemy – and find yourself stopping mid-insult to call them a beloved child of God. Here is God’s law, showing us our sin.
Hear the bad news: you can’t save yourself.
We are in bondage to sin and death, and we cannot free ourselves.
But there is hope because the Son of God has set us free from slavery to sin and death– and if the Son sets us free, we are free indeed.
Hear the good news: it’s not up to you to save yourself.
A mighty and merciful Lord has ransomed you – your salvation is assured.
We are not saved because we followed the Law, but because we are saved, we can follow our Lord’s gracious commandments.
We have been saved from sin in order to love God and love our neighbor. We have been freed from the power of death that we might live as citizens of God’s coming Kingdom.
It is this freedom that gave Stephen and Peter and Paul, Chrysostom, Francis, Wycliffe, and Hus the strength to bear witness to their faith. It was this freedom in Christ that accompanied Martin Luther through his trials. It was this freedom that was with Cranmer and Calvin and Ignatius and the Wesley brothers. It is this freedom that sent Bonhoeffer and King and Romero boldly into the world, even though it cost these blessed martyrs their earthly lives.
And you, beloved, are also set free. Sin and death might still have their say in our lives, but we are free to boldly go out in loving service. We are set free because the Christian is perfectly free, lord of all, servant to none. But also because the Christian is also free to serve – the perfectly dutiful servant to all.
So be nourished by God’s grace, freely given. Come, dip your hand in the waters of salvation where you were washed clean. Be renewed and reformed by the work of the Holy Spirit. Feast on the very Body and Blood of our Savior, made real for us by the promise of God’s Word. And go forth, like Luther and all the reformers before us, facing down sin and death and all the powers and principalities to proclaim the Good News of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Boldly go as ministers of the Gospel to work for reconciliation – not to earn your salvation but because you are saved.
This is most certainly true.